The theme of decadence was extremely popular in fin-de-siecle European literature. In addition, the degeneracy of the individual and society at large was represented in the works of Mann's contemporaries, including Oscar Wilde and Andre Gide. In Death in Venice, the issue of decadence appears through von Aschenbach's homoerotic feelings for the Polish boy, Tadzio. Although the feeling's spring from a reasonable source (the boy's beauty), von Aschenbach is decadent in how excessively fervent is feelings are, and his obsession leads to his downfall. Thus, decadence is closely related to, and indeed often causes, degeneracy.
the death's head
A death's head is a human skull or a more subtle representation of death. The death's head is the dominant leitmotif in this novella, with different representations of the same ominous man appearing in closer and closer proximity to von Aschenbach. First, while in the graveyard, he spots a strange foreigner who bares his teeth ferociously. Next, the frightening gondolier in Venice (who steers a boat that reminds von Aschenbach of a coffin) shares many of the same characteristics as the teeth-baring stranger, including a distinctive hat, reddish hair, and prominent teeth. The gondolier is physically closer to von Aschenbach than the stranger had been, but is still unavailable for conversation. The final appearance of the death's head occurs symbolically in von Aschenbach's hotel garden in the form of a singer. The singer again has similar characteristics to the other two symbolic men, including red hair and an important hat, and he pays special attention to von Aschenbach.
susceptibility to the environment
In response to Freud's writings, a psychological thrust occurred in literature with a focus on an examination of the human self in response to its environment. Von Aschenbach, as a sensitive artist, is especially susceptible to his environment. Von Aschenbach's moods are closely tied to the weather, and he decides to leave his first vacation spot in search of another merely because the weather and atmosphere do not suit him. Other characters are also responsive to the weather, and it is the general consensus in Venice that the unpleasant air is due to an excessively oppressive sirocco, rather than anything related to health concerns.
the Platonic ideal
Upon seeing Tadzio for the first time, Von Aschenbach's believes the boy exemplifes perfect beauty, is immediately relate him to the Greek ideal of beauty. Von Aschenbach uses the Greek image to abstract the boy's beauty and feel comfortable in his admiration. Thus, the Platonic ideal indicates that sexual love can exist as a precursor to a higher spiritual love that lacks physicality, a common practice between older men and younger boys. Von Aschenbach imagines himself as one of the great Greek masters, teaching Tadzio, whom he casts in the role of a young pupil. However, the writer fails to achieve the Platonic ideal, largely because he never speaks to Tadzio -- discourse is crucial to the Platonic ideal. Thus, von Aschenbach falls into a more lust-based appraisal of the boy.
A large part of being an artist, whether literary or visual, is a preoccupation with the appearance of things. Costuming and artificiality strike von Aschenbach immediately, whether negatively or positively. On the ship to Venice, von Aschenbach immediately notices a group of young men and sees an older man who, by wearing a certain type of clothing and even putting makeup on his face, is attempting to appear young. Despite von Aschenbach's disgust at this old young man's vanity, the writer makes similar changes to his appearance only a few weeks later in the hopes of attracting Tadzio's attention. In addition, von Aschenbach admires the intentionality of Tadzio's costuming, specifically his sailor suit with a red bow for the beach, and his little peacoat with brass buttons for the city. Von Aschenbach tries to assimilate the little boy's costuming to his own by adding colorful bits to his clothing. In these attempts, von Aschenbach has lost good taste to the point where he even allows the barber to try to disguise him as a younger man by dying his hair and rouging his cheeks. In his new disguise, von Aschenbach appears uncomfortably similar to the man he scorned on his way to Venice.
Mann focused on degeneracy in his work, and is famously quoted as stating that during the twentieth century, Western civilization would fall as civilized men fell prety to their "Dionysian urges." Dionysus, also known as Bacchus, is the Greek god of drunkenness and hedonism, and was usually depicted as a drunken half-man half-goat surrounded by dancing half-naked youths. His lower half consisting of a goat's body refers to his unrepressed sexual desire. Von Aschenbach's final dream/vision before his death is a markedly Dionysian orgy, and the arrival of the "strangergod" is Dionysus himself, who was based on earlier gods in the Eastern tradition (hence the "stranger").
As indicated by its title, Death in Venice consists partially of travel writing from Venice. The world holds three levels of familiarity for von Aschenbach. He is most at home in Munich and Germany, but has ceased to feel stimulated artistically, thus he looks to the exotic to refresh himself. Moving south of Germany to Italy, von Aschenbach is still in familiar territory (he has been here before, he is still in Europe) but the scene is less familiar, and quickly becomes menacing. The unfamiliarity of Italy makes Venice seem a "labyrinth," and the unhealthiness of the air is blamed on the "sirocco," a distinctly Mediterranean phenomenon.
An even more important, though more insidious representation of the exotic occurs in Mann's treatment of India. Although von Aschenbach never thinks of traveling to India, India is the substance of his first travel fantasy ("a crouching tiger gleam out of the knotty canes of a bamboo thicket") and is the most concrete source of his death (the cholera virus). If Italy is exotic and menacing to the German writer, India is even more so, and traces of the European fear of and fascination with the exotic East is evident in this work.
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Mann focused on degeneracy in his work, and is famously quoted as stating that during the twentieth century, Western civilization would fall as civilized men fell prety to their "Dionysian urges." Dionysus, also known as Bacchus,...